Although the Hellraiser franchise has gained its status as an iconic title within the horror genre, fans have agreed that the series has been little more than a shell of what it once was for a few decades now. The films have continued to decrease in quality entry after entry, only serving to be a cheap cash grab and, in the case of the last two releases, mere ploys to keep the franchise rights until they were ready to develop a bigger and better sequel. Most people will probably be going into Hellraiser (2022) expecting another lackluster addition in this vein, especially with it being touted as a reboot and released directly to streaming on Hulu. However, in a shocking turn of events, this year’s Hellraiser is a much-welcomed return to glory, reinventing the series while honoring the decades of history that came before.
Directed by David Bruckner of The Night House and V/H/S fame, Hellraiser (2022) is not exactly a remake of Clive Barker’s 1987 original. Rather than retreading the story of Kirsty Cotton and her family’s history with the Cenobites, this latest film tells an entirely original tale surrounding Riley (Odessa A’zion), a recovering addict in a relationship with the mysterious and shady Trevor (Drew Starkey). When the two attempt a quick scheme to gain enough money to set them up for life, they discover the mysterious, gateway puzzle box that we all know and love. As Riley begins to solve it, the Cenobites arrive ready to take an offering from each configuration until they are satisfied.
The biggest strength of Hellraiser (2022) is surprisingly its human characters. Odessa A’zion and Drew Starkey, along with Brandon Flynn as Riley’s brother Matt and Adam Faison as his boyfriend Colin, form the core cast, and thanks to a worthy script and all-around great performances, viewers will find themselves emotionally invested right from the start. A’zion brings a vulnerability to Riley that shines even before she’s having to face off against the Cenobites. Faison also deserves special praise, adding this sort of brotherly heart to Colin that makes him an extremely endearing character, and one that you really hope makes it to the end.
The biggest mountain that any Hellraiser reboot would have to climb would be Pinhead himself. Doug Bradley played the staple villain for eight films and nearly twenty years, making his portrayal synonymous with the guardian of hell. Rather than simply replicating what came before her, Jamie Clayton gives her own special touch to this fresh reimagining of Pinhead. Hellraiser (2022) ultimately proves that going in an unexpected direction with the household villain was for the better. This new iteration, while still maintaining the necessary elements from Bradley’s portrayal, is very much its own thing. Clayton displays a quiet and terrifying sensuality to Pinhead that makes her scarier than you can imagine.
Pinhead’s new design is also extremely effective, as are the rest of the Cenobites, in creating a terrifying and memorable group of antagonists. You will undoubtedly find yourself physically disturbed watching these beings interact with one another – the sign of how you are supposed to feel during a good Hellraiser film. Clayton and her Cenobites bring the type of fear that hasn’t been present since the first two original films, and immediately elevate this latest entry above the rest that have come after, all of which typically failed to provide any real sense of terror for casual and dedicated horror fans alike.
Speaking of the first two Hellraiser entries, they are well-known for telling stories of grandeur, with high-concept landscapes and a scale much larger than the majority of horror films of their time. In later sequels, this scale was lost in favor of low-budget, and arguably low-effort, storytelling. Now, after years of dull visuals, director David Bruckner has resurrected this much-needed scope to tell a tale that truly works as a visual spectacle alongside its status as a genuinely scary film. This spectacle becomes especially apparent in the third act, which pulls directly from Hellbound: Hellraiser II and will leave fans fulfilled, feeling nothing but pure awe at the scale of horror they are witnessing.
The Hellraiser franchise is particularly recognized for pushing boundaries with its elements of sexuality and gore. Unfortunately, one flaw that becomes apparent in this reboot is its unwillingness to commit to these aspects. Frequently, Hellraiser (2022) finds itself cutting away from moments like these scene after scene, to the point where you start to think that it’s going for that hard PG-13 rating instead of an R. It doesn’t need to be extremely gratuitous when showcasing these themes, however, Hellraiser has always incorporated elements of not only pain and violence but also the idea of pleasure and a sort of sexual gratification occurring from this. These ideas are somewhat present, yet are not expanded on or brought to the forefront in a way that may have benefitted the film further.
Despite this minor issue, Hellraiser (2022) is still an extremely well-made horror film and a solid return to form for a series that has made many missteps in the past. Fans who have remained patient, watching poor sequel after poor sequel, will finally be rewarded with an entry that takes the franchise back to its roots and reinvigorates it for modern audiences. This new iteration of Pinhead is just as terrifying as the original, and will likely carve her own legacy across the horror landscape in the years to come. It’s quite nice to see one of horror’s longest and most iconic franchises finally get the treatment it deserves, and hopefully, a better future is in store should more inspiring storytellers like David Bruckner come on board.